Residents of a four-storey hostel that caught fire in central Wellington overnight have spoken of their terrifying bid to escape the inferno, crawling on hands and knees in smoke-logged hallways.
They described waking to an alarm around 12.30am before another activated a short time later. But due to the lodge’s history of alarms, it meant they didn’t take it as seriously.
It’s also understood multiple elderly people in their 80s and 90s slept in close proximity to where the fire broke out.
A resident staying on the third floor, where the blaze was first noticed, said he’d awoken to the first alarm and walked into the corridor but didn’t notice anything unusual.
“Everybody was all kicked back, it was like ah - no alarm - all sweet,” said hostel resident Chris.
“But then it was the neighbour [shouting] ‘fire! fire!’ and the whole hallway was filled with smoke.”
Closing his door, Chris’ mind raced as he considered what to grab. He first determined where his phone was and then grabbed his vape pen nearby.
“I was then thinking ‘what else do I grab’, but then was like ‘ah, f... this I’m out of here.”
Grabbing his hat on the way out, Chris fell to the ground and began crawling out of his room, towards the stairway that would bring him to safety.
He was based on the other side of the floor to where the fire had sparked, residing fairly close to where the stairs were.
However, by the time Chris had left his room, smoke had already filled the building.
“It was hard to crawl as [there’s] only that much airspace on the ground. It was straight-up scary.”
According to Chris, the hostel was known for fire alarm activations.
When he’d been given an introduction to the hostel environment, he’d been told that “lots of people can’t cook” in the building and the alarm would often set off due to smoke.
Loafer’s Lodge is comprised of three floors and a mezzanine on the top floor. The majority of people staying in the building, from Chris’ understanding, are Work and Income clients.
Chris said that numerous elderly people lived on the third floor. He feared for their safety.
“You know, for me - it was a struggle,” he said.
“But there’s you got people in there 80 or 90 [years old] who can’t look after themselves. Considering there’s lots of old people - they’re going to struggle.”
An evacuation point for residents was set up at a nearby stadium where they were provided breakfast and blankets.
Despite being one of the fortunate ones, Chris believes he’s lost all his possessions in the blaze.
“Everything is gone bro. My room is trashed. No shoes - I grabbed my vape pen instead of shoes,” he said.
“I hope everybody made it out.”
Meanwhile, another Lodge resident - Warren Holdaway - said he sprinted out of the building as soon as the smell of smoke hit his nose.
”It is a big building and it was right down the end from me when I opened my bedroom door I could smell the smoke,” he said.
“It took me 15-20 seconds to get out of the building from where I was. I was only just down the corridor from a stairwell.”
Holdaway also confirmed an earlier alarm had been activated before the “main alarm” was set off. Upon discovering the blaze was legitimate, his first feeling once outside was “it really is on fire”.
”I live on the second floor and the fire was on the third floor, at the other end of the building,” Holdaway said.
”Fire and emergency services were still arriving when I came out of the building. There was smoke coming out of the building. The fire brigade got themselves set up and then the flames burst through the roof, the windows.”
Holdaway said businesses had started opening and council representatives were also in attendance.
”Emergency management is here, there are people feeding us here, we have got blankets and everything we need. So we are getting well looked after.
“They got us away from down there quite quickly. Four at a time in taxis. No minibuses nothing like that.”
Sunnie Chan lives in an apartment building on Hanson St, 50 metres away from Loafers Lodge.
“Me, my wife and my kids we were all woken up by yelling and fire engine sounds just before 1am,” Chan told the Herald.
“We opened the curtain and it was a full blaze like daylight. The fire was at the top floor, there were two fires on each end, one I could see was at the Basin Reserve side.”
Chan said his mother’s friend was a tenant at the building which made him worried because the location of the fire was right where most elderly people lived.
“The firefighters had their ladder up and they had just rescued two people who had come out on the stairs outside.”
Chan said he saw firefighters with their flashlights and buckets get on to the flight of stairs to check for people.
“There was a lot of black smoke coming off, it is still going nine hours later.
“The smell is horrendous. We had to shut all the windows.”
Chan said in his time living in the area he had not seen an incident of this nature at the lodge however did witness multiple police callouts.
“It seems a little suspicious.
“A lot of 501 deportees and gang members live on that floor as well.”
At this stage, it’s understood that six people have died in the blaze, according to Prime Minister Chris Hipkins who spoke to the AM Show.
Fire and Emergency’s initial assessment has concluded the number of those killed “is fewer than 10″. NZME understands there have been fatalities on all floors of the three-storey building.
Fire and Emergency were called to the Loafers Lodge hostel, on Adelaide Rd, just before 12.30am by the time the blaze on the top floor was well involved.
Wellington Fire and Emergency District Manager Nick Pyatt said 52 people have been accounted for from the building, with a number of people still missing and multiple people will be dead.
Police say they believe fewer than 10 people are dead.
The hostel has capacity for 92 people, but it’s not clear how many people were inside at the time the blaze broke out.
The blaze was quickly elevated to a fifth alarm, with 20 fire trucks on the scene by 4am.
It is understood at least one person was injured after escaping the fire by jumping out a third-floor window.
Holdaway said one of the most heartbreaking things was the looming loss of community.
“Whatever people said about that building, it was our home. And now we’re all going to be split up into different motels and hotels, and that community will never be together again.”